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The strange tale of the leg on the whale


Some years ago, while speaking on evidence for creation at a university in New Zealand’s South Island, there was a serious challenge from someone in the audience. I later found out he was an ardent theistic evolutionist. He asked how I could possibly sustain my position when there had been a documented find of a modern whale with a complete hind leg attached to its side. I recall being somewhat taken aback. Surely such a find, if genuine, would be the pride and joy of all anti-creationist skeptics. It would have featured repeatedly as a front-line weapon in their many attacks on the defenders of Genesis and biblical authority, so why hadn’t any of the world’s creation organizations heard of it?

I knew, of course, that some modern whales have a pair of bones embedded in their tissues, each of which strengthens the pelvic wall and acts as an organ anchor. I knew that evolutionists generally claim that these small, yet purposeful structures are vestigial (‘left-over’) organs. They choose to believe that each bone of the pair is all that is left of the pelvic bone of the whale’s ancestor which, according to evolutionary doctrine, once walked and ran on land. They believe this even though these strips of bone have a known function, differ in males and females, and are not even attached to the vertebral column. I also knew that people are sometimes born with abnormalities such as an extra finger, or an extra rib, but no evolutionist claims that we evolved from a six-fingered ancestor. Whales could be born with a little extra lump of bone which evolutionists therefore insisted was a throwback corresponding to a second limb bone.

skeleton of a Right whale

Above: Photo of the skeleton of a Greenland Right whale, with bony disease. The small pelvic bone is seen below.

From E.J.Slijper, Whales,2 fig. 226, p. 423. Reproduced with permission from Routledge, and may not be reproduced elsewhere without their permission.

Below: Drawing shows a similar (small) pelvic bone of a Sperm whale with an even smaller abnormal lump of bone fused to it, which abnormality is labeled by evolutionists a ‘vestigial femur.’ However, this tiny blob of bone bears little resemblance to the leg bone of any land animal.

abnormal lump
However, the spectacle of a whale being hauled out of the ocean with an actual leg hanging down from its side was a totally different issue. I don’t remember my exact response, but I indicated that, if true, this would be a serious challenge to explain on the basis of a creation model. I expressed doubt, whereupon the challenger vigorously affirmed the truth of the ‘discovery.’ I invited him to send me the documentation, and he said he would.

That was the last I heard of it until I spoke at the same university several years later. A local Christian medical specialist stood up in question time and recounted the ‘whale’s leg’ incident, saying he had been there at the time. What had come of the exchange—had I ever received the documentation? I said that I hadn’t, and that I still doubted the story.

At that time, my theistic evolutionary challenger of the previous time did not make himself known. However, he did surface at a subsequent seminar session I gave on the same visit. He challenged some point about the Genesis account, while cradling an ethically and scientifically discredited anti-creationist book by a prominent humanist crusader. He must have heard about my dismissal of the ‘whale tale,’ because he approached me in the interval, saying in front of the gathered bystanders that he would now provide me with the documentation. He said that he had read it in the best-selling book The Dinosaur Heresies, by renowned evolutionary paleontologist Robert Bakker.

The plot thickens

Once back in Australia, we looked up this source. Indeed, while not referring to a specific find, Dr Bakker writes on p. 317:

‘And every once in a while a modern whale is hauled in with a hind leg, complete with thigh and knee muscles, sticking out of its side. These atavistic hind legs are nothing less than throwbacks to a totally pre-whale stage of their existence, some fifty million years ago.’1

Since there was no supporting documentation, we arranged for a colleague in the U.S. to contact Dr Bakker and ask him for the evidence he relied on for this major claim. Our colleague reported that Bakker told him his source was the book Whales by E. Slijper, apparently including a picture of a whale with a complete leg.

Everhard Johannes Slijper (1907–1968) was professor of general zoology at Amsterdam University, Netherlands. He was the world’s leading authority on whales. Chapter 2 of his classic work is entitled ‘Evolution and External Appearance.’ In it, he talks about a bone in whales that he calls the ‘pelvic bone,’ which is some 30 centimetres (12 inches) long, ‘but unlike the pelvis of normal mammals it is not attached to the vertebral column.’ This bone serves as an anchorage for the male reproductive organs. Slijper goes on to say that sometimes ‘another small bone may be attached to it.’ Being an evolutionist, he naturally interprets this smaller piece of bone as a throw-back to the femur, or thigh bone, of the whale’s evolutionary ancestor. However, he states that in these occasional cases, the bone in question is generally 2.5 cm (just over an inch) in length, and that it is sometimes ‘fused’ with the pelvic bone.

Note how to this point he has not mentioned anything about a ‘leg’ protruding from a whale’s side. The evidence so far fits just as easily with the idea that some whales (who normally have functional bones in their pelvic region, as he admits) can be born with abnormal bits of bone. There is a complex DNA program which causes the development of the normal bone in this part of the whale’s anatomy. A mutational defect in this program could easily cause one or more extra pieces of bone to form, which would almost inevitably be in the same region, either separate from or fused with the normal bone. In the same way, people can be born with extra fingers, ribs, nipples, etc. If this should extend to two extra pieces of bone, no matter how misshapen or otherwise these were, enthusiastic evolutionists would no doubt interpret one additional piece of bone as a ‘femur,’ and any second one would be labeled a ‘tibia’ (shin bone). Sure enough, Slijper refers to an occasional third bony structure attached to what he has already called a ‘femur’ and labels it as a ‘tibia.’ It occurs in some Right whales and occasionally in some Sperm whales.

So far, so good. However, such an explanation would be unable to cope with the occurrence in modern whales of an actual leg (internal or external), since this would clearly have design features which would never have been needed if the first whales were created. So our curiosity continued.

Myth tracked down

The closest thing to the claim which launched our pursuit of this whole trail is where Slijper states, ‘Thus, at Ayukawa Whaling Station (Japan), a Sperm Whale was brought in in 1956, with a 5-inch tibia projecting into a 5½-inch “bump," and a Russian factory ship in the Bering Sea had a similar experience in 1959.’ No photo is provided.

Ignoring for the moment the purely anecdotal nature of the evidence, what is it that is being claimed? Sperm whales are massive—up to about 19m (62 feet) long. A 14 cm (5.5 inch) ‘bump’ on its side would look like an almost unnoticeable pimple. Inside the bump is a piece of bone, some 12.5 cm (5 inches) ‘long.’ There is no evidence given of anything which could reasonably be called a ‘leg.’ Slijper calls the bone inside the ‘bump’ a ‘tibia.’ But we have already seen that it doesn’t take much for evolutionary believers to label abnormal pieces of bone in ways to fit their naturalistic religion.

Do fossil whales have legs?

Many claims have been made in recent times that the fossil ancestors of modern whales have been found, and that some extinct creature or another shows the transition from creatures walking on land, with legs, to today’s whales which have no legs.

  • Pakicetus was claimed to be a ‘walking whale’—yet the type specimen consisted only of jaw and skull fragments.

  • Basilosaurus has been claimed as the whale’s ancestor. However, while it did have functional hind limbs, these were far too tiny to have anything to do with walking, and evolutionists themselves have said they were probably used for grasping in reproduction.

  • Ambulocetus, with clear-cut hind limbs, was obviously able to walk, and is the latest fossil candidate—but it is doubtful that this imaginatively reconstructed creature had anything to do with the history of whales, as previous articles (see ‘further reading’ list above) have shown.

From whales to human tails

Even if these poorly documented accounts are true, a fist-sized bump on the side of a whale, with bony tissue inside, bears little resemblance to the report by the popular evolutionist Bakker, quoted earlier. Sadly, many people are being given the idea that there is good scientific evidence of modern whales being born with complete legs dangling from their sides! It seems as if this particular ‘evidence’ for evolution is about the same as that of the occasional human babies which are born with an abnormal lump of fat close to the base of the spine. In spite of the fact that these lumps have no tail-like structures in them, and are often not even on the mid-line, they are still frequently claimed to be ‘throw-backs’ to an alleged evolutionary ancestor with a tail!

The changes required in the evolutionary belief system for a land animal to become a whale are incredibly complex and far reaching. Evolutionist Anthony Martin explains:

‘Principally it meant developing a new mode of locomotion (from walking to swimming), a physiology to cope with a dense medium (water rather than air), new methods of detecting and catching prey, and a means of breathing efficiently at the sea surface.

‘This adaptation was achieved by changing every part of the body, particularly the head … As well as changes to the head, adaptation to an aquatic way of life brought about fundamental alterations to the rest of the body.’3

By contrast, there is nothing about the anatomy of modern whales, including the occasional minor abnormalities, which is difficult to incorporate into a creationist understanding of their origins. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator-made-flesh, indicated in Mark 10:6 that people were made ‘from the beginning of the creation’ (not billions of years after the beginning). Whales, along with other creatures of the sea, were made just one day earlier.4 The same God Who is able to raise a person from the dead was easily able to accomplish this.

Further reading

References and notes

  1. R. Bakker, The Dinosaur Heresies: A Revolutionary View of Dinosaurs, U.K. edition, Longman Group, Essex, 1986; published in USA as The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and their Extinction, Morrow, New York, 1986. Return to text.
  2. E.J.Slijper, Whales, translated from Dutch by A.J. Pomerans, Cornell University Press, New York, (U.K. edition Hutchinson, taken over by Routledge, London, UK), 2nd edition, 1979. Return to text.
  3. Anthony R. Martin, Whales and Dolphins, Bedford Editions, London, p. 12, 1990. Return to text.
  4. Progressive creationists/Rossists often claim that the order of appearance given by evolutionary scientists fits the data in Genesis. However, the secular scientists they are trying to appease insist that land mammals arose before whales, whereas the Bible teaches that whales appeared before land mammals. Applying exegetical contortions to pretend that the Genesis days could mean billions of years does not get around this problem. Return to text. reaches millions of people each year–many of these aren't believers in our Creator and Savior Jesus Christ. How will we keep reaching them without your support? Please consider a small gift today. Support this site

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